The George Lois Archives: More Relevant Today Than Ever

Legendary Ad Man's Work Has Important Lessons for the Advertising Industry

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In this digital age of advertising, the acquisition by CCNY of George Lois' archives provides more than a treasure trove of iconic advertising and artifacts for students of the discipline. It provides us with important lessons that today's ad men seem to be paying lip service to, and the result has been that the level of overall creative today is mediocre at best.

Underlying George Lois' work, there is a passion that we do not see today. We are so concerned with big data and focusing on micro-segmenting that we can't "see the forest for the trees." We rely on SEO and the ongoing dependence on analytics to justify to clients that we know what we are doing. STEM now supersedes creativity. No wonder the ad agency model is becoming so redundant.

This situation is no different than the "packaged goods" reaction to the creative revolution of the 1960s. Then, its focus was on market segmenting to the point that market research became self-serving, so as to justify to clients that the money they spent on the template advertising they created was well-invested.

Now with digital technology, we have evolved to micro-segmenting, and in the process have lost the fact that advertising is meant to deliver a message to a mass audience. What's happened is that the delivery tool (digital media) has overtaken the content (creativity) in importance. And the ability for the content to re-establish its importance is severely impeded by the fact that digital is one-to-one media, not mass-driven.

What ever happened to the "big idea" George so aptly referred to as the basis of great advertising? It's there in his archives. It's in his incredibly well-developed presentations and the actual advertising he created that was simply based on differentiating his clients' products from the competition. And he did this not by relying on an overabundance of market research, but on an understanding of our culture. For George, the creative may seem outrageous, but if the "big idea" is boldly memorable, the strategy naturally springs from it.

But these archives provide even more of an understanding as to why Mary Wells in "The Real Mad Men of Madison Avenue" refers to George as the "rock star" of the advertising creative revolution. Underlying the passion behind the work is the fact that Mr. Lois embraces advertising -- a field that even some in the business consider deceptive. By his doing so, he helps us to better learn life lessons.

Some of his endeavors include: his friendship with Paul Robeson; boldly fighting McCarthyism at CBS television; his vital roles with Robert Kennedy and other major politicians; his iconic "Esquire" covers -- initially received as jarring and prescient statements, which have since become essential to the iconography of American culture; his collaborating with Doctor Benjamin Spock and the Committee for Sane Nuclear Testing (SANE), which was instrumental in generating support for the passage of the Test Ban Treaty of 1963; his dynamic relationship with Muhammad Ali; and his effort in helping Rubin "Hurricane" Carter reverse his unjust murder conviction.

George's breakthrough work was the spark that enabled advertising to transcend simply selling products. And even when he dealt with the selling of those traditional products, there was an understanding of our culture that enabled the work to survive beyond the life of the product.

There is no distinction between his ethics, passion and beliefs, as so reflected in the archives. I learned this firsthand as a fledgling account executive at Lois Holland Callaway, where I had a front-row seat as the agency came to grips with the loss of the Cutty Sark Scotch account -- its largest piece of business -- because George refused to stop working for a retrial for Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. It never crossed my mind until later that in advertising, art, commerce and morality often merge, and incredibly hard choices have to be made.

George made those choices and, in doing so, his actions, in keeping with his work, made the craft called advertising noble. It is the gift of these archives that provide future advertising professionals the opportunity to not only examine the past 60 years, but to apply the lessons from them to help the discipline called advertising recapture its lost luster.